"Boris, ironically, now offers Remoaners the best chance of a soft Brexit, or at least a sensible one. And to those who want a second referendum—'the people’s vote'—there may even be a chance of that too."
Like most of those who voted to stay in the European Union in 2016, I have come to loathe Boris Johnson.
Of those who led the “No” campaign, we would have expected nothing less of the slothful David Davis, Liam Fox and Michael Gove: their anti-EU prejudices were well advertised beforehand. But Johnson, the late convert, was another matter. Perhaps that’s why Remoaners have it in for him particularly, because he might so easily have swung the other way. Worse, once Johnson had made his mind up, he, personally, swung it for Brexit. And whereas I remained indifferent to his antics on a zipwire, merely winced as he gormlessly waved that flag around at the London Olympics, I despaired at his slapdash diplomacy at the Foreign Office.
But what’s past is past, and now is the time for some realpolitik. The fact is that Boris, ironically, now offers Remoaners the best chance of a soft Brexit, or at least a sensible one. And to those who want a second referendum—“the people’s vote”—there may even be a chance of that too. Bear with me.
For all the talk of a no-deal Brexit, there is little doubt that further arduous negotiations lie ahead, both before the withdrawal date of October 31 and afterwards, to settle that elusive trade deal with the EU. These negotiations, like all negotiations, will require compromise as much as bluster, fudges as much as lofty rhetoric. Only Johnson has the credibility with the European Research Group and the hardline Brexiteers, both within and without parliament, to make those fudges.
Boris has money in the bank. They will take stuff from him that they never took from Mrs May, a cautious Remainer who listened too much to her Chancellor. An admirer of Birmingham’s pied piper Joseph Chamberlain, she, like young Neville, tended to look at European affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe, with the same devastating results. Johnson, at least, is intelligent enough to recognise a brick wall when he sees one, and adjust accordingly. Some call this duplicity—but it might yet turn out to be his saving grace. Mrs May certainly was not duplicitous, but neither was she cunning, charismatic, clever or flexible—just disastrously obstinate.
Experience shows, time and again, that it is the (relative) extremists who clinch the deal or win the lasting peace, who make the vital concessions, not the moderates. Only the diehards and blowhards have the political capital to spend on reconciling their own supporters to the unpalatable choices that leaders have to make. Thus it was the right-wing Republican Richard Nixon who sat down with the mass-murderer Mao Tse-tung, and Ronald Reagan who flirted with abandoning America’s nuclear arsenal to end the Cold War. Imagine the cries of “traitor” and “commie”, the massed ranks of special counsels, if it had been a Democratic president negotiating away America’s missiles across the table from Gorbachev in Reykjavik. As it was, no one questioned Reagan’s right to make the grand gesture, a gesture that even most Democrats would have balked at.
Equally it was President de Gaulle who evacuated France from Algeria, even after the army had supported the creation of his Fifth Republic in the belief that he was exactly the man who would keep France in Algeria. Conservative ministers wound down the British Empire, with very little grumbling from the back benches, and it was Mrs Thatcher who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, giving the Dublin government, for the first time, an advisory role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The deal was anathema to many Tory MPs, but she still carried the vast majority of them with her, just as it was the hardliner Ian Paisley and the gunman Martin McGuiness, not the moderates, who eventually chuckled their way to the province’s first multi-party government.
No, the moderates, like David Trimble and John Hume, or Mrs May, might, superficially, be more sensible, balanced, nicer and safer even, but they rarely get the business done. Their very failures often clear the way for others. Watching their more impulsive, intuitive and sometimes populist and erratic successors carry off all the prizes must be galling, but there it is. Think Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
So Remoaners must pinch their noses and back Boris. Johnson is being honest when he says that he is not actively seeking a no-deal Brexit, the doomsday scenario, but he is surely right to demand that the option remain on the table. Remoaners are usually a liberal bunch, so they can be reassured by his record as Mayor of London, as well as his Georgian lifestyle. There will be lots of plaster raining down from the ceiling along the way, but Boris Johnson remains the best bet for a Remoaner’s type of Brexit.
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